Haiti Beyond Crisis. Cultural Anthropology Hot Spots series, co-edited with Laura Wagner
This series suggests new ways to understand the current situation in Haiti and poses questions about what is, and isn’t, happening in Haiti right now. We seek to move beyond the framework of crisis and to put recent events, such as last year’s presidential assassination, earthquake, and US border patrol crackdown on Haitian migrants, into historical context. The contributors to this series—scholars, activists, journalists, and others from inside and outside Haiti—draw on years of experience to write about themes including violence and ensekirite, migration and deportation, exploitation and industrialization, state corruption, international intervention, everyday life, and Haiti as a symbol of collective freedom. Together, these pieces offer a rare document—an archive that blends ethnography and history, political and social analysis, and personal and polemical argument to help reframe our thinking about contemporary Haiti. To make this series as inclusive and accessible as possible, we are publishing it in English, Kreyòl, and French. We hope to document what is happening now, and to think beyond it: into the past, to the historical roots of the present crisis and into any number of possible futures.
Unlivable Life: Ordinary Disaster and the Atmosphere of Crisis in Haiti
Set against the backdrop of soaring inflation, rolling blackouts, fuel riots, roadblocks, and antigovernment protests, this essay explores a new language of political crisis in Haiti that draws on the concept of unlivable life. In so doing, it seeks to directly connect political responses to crisis, such as protests over the high cost of living or government corruption, with ordinary or seemingly banal disasters, such as a capsized boat that led to the deaths of dozens of overseas migrants to show how the political crisis in Haiti appears in people’s lives in both ordinary and catastrophic ways. The essay aims to show how the Haitian concept of “the unlivable” can help us theorize the dialectical relationship between a general atmosphere of crisis and the particular effects, or ordinary disasters, to which it routinely gives rise.— SMALL AXE 62, July 2020, 78–95
The Banality of Care: The Figure of the Humanitarian, in Haiti and Elsewhere
The humanitarian is often seen as the great moral figure of our time. In this article, I explore how the idea of the humanitarian, as a global public figure, is related to broader ideas of liberalism, agency, ethics, and care. I draw on ethnographic examples from Haiti to first paint a portrait of the humanitarian as a person concerned with certain ideas of care, suffering, and salvation. I then offer a more general theoretical account of the figure of the humanitarian and suggest that this figure is tied to a larger story about liberal responses to cruelty and suffering. In the end, I suggest that the figure of the humanitarian tells us much about the normalization of emergency around the world and about what I call the banality of care. —PUBLIC ANTHROPOLOGIST, 2019, 1(2): 156–170
A Dog’s Life: Suffering Humanitarianism in Port‐au‐Prince, Haiti
In the Bel Air neighborhood of Port‐au‐Prince, Haiti, most residents are dependent on humanitarian and foreign assistance for food, services, aid, and jobs. Yet, some residents feel that the conditions under which such aid is provided actively blocks their ability to live a life they find meaningful. In this article, I explore how some Haitians theorize this humanitarian condition through the figure of the dog, an animal that exemplifies, for Haitians, the deep history of violence, dehumanization, and degradation associated with foreign rule. I then contrast this with how foreign aid workers invoke the figure of the dog to illustrate their compassionate care for suffering others. Drawing on research among Bel Air residents and foreign aid workers in the years after a devastating earthquake destroyed much of Port‐au‐Prince, I show how the figure of the dog is central both to Haitian critiques of humanitarian aid and to the international humanitarian imaginary that responds to forms of suffering it deems cruel. — AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, 2017, Vol. 119(1) 35–45
The Abolition of All Privilege: Race, Equality, and Freedom in the Work of Anténor Firmin
Anthropology has done much to challenge the idea of the natural inferiority of races, but at times this challenge has ignored the problem of racism. This article explores an important but largely ignored foundational text about race and equality written by Anténor Firmin, a Haitian intellectual who in 1885 set out to critique the categories and concepts of nineteenth-century French anthropology. I show how Firmin’s critique of race thinking and the doctrine of racial inequality were rooted in a broader critique of colonialism, racism, and inherited privilege. Drawing on Firmin’s argument that the end of racism would facilitate the abolition of all privilege, I suggest ways in which the discipline of anthropology might build on his critique to develop a more powerful response to the reemergence of ideas of innate difference and inequality. — CRITIQUE OF ANTHROPOLOGY, 2017, Vol. 37(2) 160–17
The Art of Not Governing Port-au-Prince
In Haiti, urbanization through “slumification” has generated an overwhelming sense of crisis. In this article I trace the history of the urban crisis and consider some examples of the making of slums in order to show how the spatial form of the city has been shaped by a peculiar dialectic between the state and statelessness. In Haiti, this dialectic takes shape in Port-au-Prince, where people feel they ought to be well within the reach of the state and yet feel excluded or left out. Ostensibly the center of political and administrative power, Port-au-Prince has long been regarded as an ungoverned space and as a concrete image of the absence of the state. In this article, I argue that the problems of Port-au-Prince stem not from an absence of governance but rather from a particular approach to governance—what I call the art of not governing. — SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES, 2014, Vol. 63(2) 31–57
Thinking with Others: Savage Thoughts about Anthropology and the West
This essay explores the significance of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s final work, Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. It posits that Trouillot’s argument contains three key claims. First, that anthropology is predicated on a problematic alterity, a way of thinking about otherness and difference constituted in relation to the universal unmarked category of the West. Second, that this relation between anthropology and alterity can be fully exposed only by tracing the historical emergence of the West through its imaginative and material relations with others—a history best seen from the experience of Caribbean societies and peoples. Third, that anthropology has the capacity to provide us with the necessary moral optimism to rethink the relation between plurality and universalism that grounds the human condition, but to do so we must first rescue the concepts of culture and difference from liberal identity politics. — SMALL AXE, 2013, Vol. 17(3) No. 42 166–181
The Ontology of Freedom: The Unthinkable Miracle of Haiti
In this article, I want to extend Trouillot’s account of the unthinkability of the revolution by showing that this unthinkability rests on an ontological distinction between kinds of human beings. Some scholars have recentlybegun to challenge Trouillot’s argument,7 noting for example how the possibility of slave uprisings entered into the journals, newspapers, andphilosophical texts of European thinkers and colonial planters. Theseaccounts give us a better picture of the hopes and fears of planter society and the intellectual life of European philosophers, but they do not counterTrouillot’s general claim. Whatever talk there was of slave uprisings, noone in the colonies or in Europe thought that slaves had the right of self-determination needed to revolt. In the final section of this article, Iexamine how the same ontological distinction remains with us today and how it continues to render a free and independent Haiti unthinkable. — JOURNAL OF HAITIAN STUDIES, 2013, Vol. 19(2) 54-74
Master of the Wood: Moral Authority and Political Imaginaries in Haiti
When Sir J. G. Frazer opened his exhaustive study of magic, ritual, and science,The Golden Bough, with a discussion of the sacred grove at Nemi, he was con- cerned to explain why the priest-king of this “sylvan landscape,” in order to claim his title as king, had to commit murder. Why, in short, did this institution hinge on “a strange and recurring tragedy” (Frazer 1960:1)? Max Gluckman later cited a key passage from this opening in his discussion of “rituals of rebellion.” For Gluckman, such rituals allow for the expression of social tensions since they “proceed within an established and sacred traditional system, in which there is dispute about particular distributions of power, and not about the structure of the system itself” (Gluckman 1963:112). Gluckman thus reads Frazer’s discussion of myth as a metaphor for a particular set of power relations, albeit a set of relations that, he says, cannot exist in situations in which genuine revolutions are possible. I want to use these two images—that of the strange recurring tragedy in the for- est and that of the ritualized expression of social tensions—to highlight some key aspects of the political imaginary in Haiti. How do people make sense of rela- tions of power and domination, and how are such relations both constituted and contested through social actions? To answer these questions, I will begin from the ground up, moving from a discussion of a particular ritual to a discussion of a property dispute, and finally to a discussion of how both of these relate to— and indeed are themselves metonymic of—the wider social, political, and economic context of what I will here call post-totalitarian Haiti. — POLAR: POLITICAL AND LEGAL ANTHROPOLOGY REVIEW, 2004 Vol. 27(2) 1–19
“Rethinking the Haiti Crisis.” In The Idea of Haiti: Rethinking Crisis and Development. Edited by Millery Polyné. University of Minnesota Press. 2013.
“Phantom Power: Notes on Provisionality in Haiti.” In Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency. Edited by John Kelly, Beatrice Jauregui, Sean T. Mitchell, and Jermey Walton. University of Chicago Press. 2010.